Themes are overarching ideas and beliefs that the writers express in their texts including poetry, fiction, and plays. Themes make the story appealing and persuasive and help readers to understand the hidden messages in a story or poem. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman has various themes and is known as one of the best modern tragedy written by an American author in the 20th Century. Some of the overarching themes of Death of a Salesman have been discussed below.
Themes in Death of a Salesman
The American Dream has been one of the themes of most literary works written during that time. Characters in this play try to reach this dream in one or the other way and feel frustrated when facing failure. Howard Wagner is one of the examples who has inherited this dream from his father, while Bernard, the son of Charley, achieved his dream in the legal profession. However, one person who continually faces failure is Willy Loman. He could not become a world-class salesman and could not make his sons achieve his failed dreams. Biff is a classic case of failure at this age, while Happy is not ambitious. Seeing failure of his own desires and that of the half-hearted efforts of his sons, Willy Loman tries to follow his brother, Ben, who achieved this dream at such a young age but fails. Therefore, he commits suicide out of frustration.
Dangers of Modernity
Modernity that has kicked off during the decades of the 50s was taking firm roots in the United States, making various professionals entirely obsolete. In this background, it was posing serious threats to different professions. Willy Loman’s profession was one of them. Hence, Howard Wagner starts fidgeting with the radio when talking to Willy to make it clear to him that now technological development is replacing human beings. Willy Loman’s frustration of his failure in his field costs him his life. The modern objects and their presence in the play, too, points to his increased frustration.
Gender issues and relationships with the opposite gender is another major theme of the play. With the modernity and materialism taking firm roots in the society, the female seems to replace the patriarchy and become the head of the family. Willy Loman’s affair with the attractive anonymous woman of Boston and his son’s womanizing attitude both point to gender relationships in the capitalistic society. Interestingly, Linda does not fall victim to this modern thinking, or she does not become a tool to be exploited. Instead, she stays loyal to her husband.
Although every person tries, material luck comes to those who exploit the opportunities. Howard Wagner knows that Willy Loman is no match to modern marketing and business innovations. That is why he sacks him without feeling any empathy. Willy Loman does not see this as an opportunity to improve himself professionally, while for Wagner it is an opportunity to find new hands. In the same way, Happy has found an opportunity, but Biff lacks this acumen to see things. In fact, Bernard and Biff both have similar opportunities, but one decides to exploit it, while the other does not. This makes the difference.
The play, Death of a Salesman, is the tragedy of a family which could not accept the changing times. Willy Loman, while trying to materialize his American dream, loses his senses. He knows that he has lost touch with the modern market. Therefore, he depends on his sons to realize his dreams, but both fail. Biff does not know what to do in life, while Happy does not have any dream. Charley and Bernard, their neighbors, have been placed by Miller in contrast to them to show a successful family. Conversely, Willy Loman and his sons have been implicitly presented as a failed family. Therefore, family and relationships is another theme of the play.
Developing a fetish for a figure, or personality cult is another major theme of the play. Willy Loman constantly repeats lines and advises his sons that they must be well-liked. This is his pet word that he uses time and again to reflect a culture where a person well-liked becomes an icon in business and industry. Therefore, business and market are based on the idea of the culture of personality. Miller has highlighted this belief of Willy Loman that image creates an economy and that people well-liked become financially successful.
Natural and Artificial World
Arthur Miller has placed the natural and the artificial world side by side. On the one hand, Willy Loman tries to find a good career amid his failure as a salesman. He is fired from the company by its new owner, Howard Wagner. This reflects the harsh artificial world of urban capitalism where a man has no place if he is not beneficial for the business. However, on the other hand, his son Biff talks about working on ranches to find refuge in the natural world.
Betrayal and Abandonment
Another minor theme of the play is the betrayal of relationships and dreams. Willy Loman constantly hankers after Biff that he would realize his dream. However, Biff constantly dodges his dreams and comes out of the dream circle, declaring that he does not like the office job. As a salesman, Willy Loman takes this rejection on the part of Biff as an insult. In this sense, this betrayal of Biff and his abandonment of the dream that his father has harbored for years leads Willy to frustration. At the same time, Willy Loman’s affair with the Woman is betrayal toward his wife. Therefore, this becomes a recurrent theme throughout the play.
Reality and Illusion
The play has presented another minor theme that is reality and illusions. Willy Loman dreams that he would succeed, or else his sons would do it in case of his failure. His dream of amassing wealth and living in luxury is an illusion that he cannot see becoming a reality in his lifetime despite his claims. In fact, he is unable to face the reality of his failure, his sons’ possible failure and going against his dream. Therefore, instead of accepting reality, he commits suicide.
Cruelty of Capitalism
Cruelty and inhumanity of the capitalist world is another minor theme of the play. Howard Wagner knows that Willy Loman has worked for Wagner’s father very diligently. He also knows that he is an experienced salesman, but the desire for more profit forces him to show him cold shoulder due to Willy Loman’s inability to make more sales in the modern period. He fails to come up to Wagner’s expectations and has to face sacking. Wagner does not see any utility of the old salesman, ignoring his services for the company. He shows the cruelty of capitalism through Willy’s expulsion.